Saba Ahmad is a Litigator working on environmental, administrative and commercial matters in Toronto. Learn more at www.sabaahmad.com
It’s a common refrain: your lawyer’s bill is too high. Less often discussed is how clients can avoid common (and understandable) behaviours that tend to drive up legal fees.
Lawyers charge by the hour. So naturally, the client’s goal, is to help the lawyer spend as little time as is necessary to resolve the matter.
Here are three tips to help reduce those bills:
One big waste of your lawyer’s time is assembling (and fumbling with) your documents. Your lawyer needs to know your case. She will make specific requests and read everything you provide.
Listen to the instructions carefully.
On a small file, it may be easier to receive one batch of documents in PDF, text-searchable format, as compared to multiple batches in various formats. If a document needs to be requested from someone (like a government agency, or your insurance company), make those requests yourself or engage your assistant or an employee.
Your time is valuable, but it gets expensive when your lawyer bills you hundreds of dollars an hour to hunt down documents. Your lawyer’s assistant is also expensive, and you might encounter the broken telephone problem, with the lawyer possibly having to duplicate the work.
2. Line Everything Up
Recently a contractor described his work to me. He lines everything up before he begins a job. He orders supplies, engages his trades, arranges for homeowners to vacate and plans the job. When everything is ready, the contractor goes in and out, minimizing the total time it takes to do the job and disruption to the client.
If lawyers worked this way, their bills would be lower. However, we often receive information about the case over a period of time. The client and lawyer might have scheduling problems, delaying necessary meetings or phone calls. If the lawyer gets busy with other files, by the time he returns to your file, he needs time to refresh his thinking.
A lawyer is likely more efficient working in few, big chunks of time rather than many, little chunks of time. One six-hour session is usually more productive than six one-hour sessions. But clients often prefer to provide retainers in modest increments, leading lawyers to suspend work until the retainer is replenished.
Working in fits and starts often cannot be helped. But playing phone tag with your lawyer – or worse, having prolonged email conversations with your lawyer – isn’t lean.
Be available and accessible, timely provide and replenish retainers, and plan your next communication with your lawyer. Ask what work the lawyer plans to do next, make sure she has everything she needs, and follow up on all expected deliverables during the next update.
3. Be Honest
This applies mostly in the civil litigation context where, in my experience, it can cost the client higher fees when I discover a lack of candour.
Being honest with your lawyer might be hard if you’re not being honest with yourself. What seems to happen is clients lose sight of things they might have done “wrong” – or, they imagine they must avoid those areas where they know or suspect their own conduct fell short.
Often, clients misjudge how the law would view their “misdeeds”. Breaches of contract may be defensible and certain “sins” are irrelevant and can only be avoided if your lawyer knows to avoid them.
In other cases, a misdeed is best addressed by getting more information. Hiding from your lawyer a lack of due diligence, for example, prevents your lawyer from getting information about experts upon whom you might have relied.
When your lawyer discovers important facts late, she might have to re-think strategies for your case. Amending pleadings and re-doing research can be expensive. What’s more expensive is the time sunk in strategies that cannot be pursued in light of new facts.
Many lawyers bemoan the billable hour because, quite frankly, it’s a pain to keep track of every minute of the day and it’s stressful to constantly be aware of one’s own productivity. However, litigators often cannot predict how a matter will proceed. It depends on facts that develop, results of research, and the conduct of opposing counsel. In the absence of a more predictable system, lawyers have the incentive to make clients bear the costs of the vagaries of litigation. You can reduce your exposure to those costs by being ready to help your lawyer with documents and information, and being available to provide instructions and receive updates.